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Champions League: Liverpool knocks off Villarreal in semifinal first leg

Champions League: Liverpool knocks off Villarreal in semifinal first leg
Liverpool forward Sadio Mane (R) celebrates with teammate Andrew Robertson (L) after scoring during their UEFA Champions League first-leg semifinal match against Villarreal CF on Wednesday in Liverpool, Britain. Photo by Peter Powell/EPA-EFE

April 27 (UPI) -- Liverpool cruised to a dominant 2-0 win over Villarreal in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal matchup Wednesday at Anfield.

Villarreal battled in the first half but came unglued in the second as midfielder Jordan Henderson's deflected cross soared past goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli -- later ruled as a Pervis Estupinan own goal. Liverpool striker Sadio Mane scored just minutes later to clinch the victory.

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Liverpool, which won Europe's premier club soccer tournament in 2019, is attempting to reach its third Champions League final in five years.

"They are a very organized team, and we knew they would make it difficult," Henderson said after the victory. "It was just important that we kept going and believed that we would eventually break them down. We did that with two good goals.

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"Majority of the game, our counter-pass was really good. It made it difficult for them. But the game is still alive and it will be tough in Villarreal."

Villarreal has enjoyed a remarkable run in the knockout stages of this year's UCL competition. The Spanish side upset Juventus and Bayern Munich in the previous two rounds, but Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool team was rarely challenged in the semifinal clash.

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Henderson broke through for Liverpool on 53 minutes when he struck a cross from near the right corner flag. The ball deflected off Estupinan's left foot and bounced off Rulli's hand before finding the back of the net.

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Mane doubled his club's lead just two minutes later by burying a close-range shot. Mohamed Salah squeezed a pass between multiple defenders and into Mane's path, and he quickly deposited the shot into the net.

Villarreal failed to have a single shot on target as they struggled to find offensive chances.

"I have to admit, it could have been much worse," Villarreal manager Unai Emery said. "We have tried to attack, to pass, to construct, but they did not let us do anything. Our last resort was to resist defensively in order to survive for the second match."

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The two sides are scheduled to meet again in the return leg at the Estadio de la Ceramica on May 3 for a spot in the Champions League final.

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